Labor Conflicts: The Case of Two Supermarket Strikes
In 2003, California endured the longest supermarket strike in US history. More than 70,000 grocery workers picketed outside their stores for almost five months. Although the two sides eventually reached an agreement, they both endured heavy losses. Many workers went into heavy debt while they were on the picket lines. Some even lost their houses. The chains suffered too, losing more than one billion dollars in sales. "I don't think anybody won. Everybody lost," said Scott.  Just one year after the strike, another supermarket strike looms in Colorado. As in California, the chains claim they have to cut labor costs to compete, but their workers cry exploitation. These workers and their employers are locked into an intractable conflict. To understand this conflict, it is first necessary to understand who is involved. The obvious parties are the grocery workers and their employers, the big supermarket chains. But, there are also other players involved, most importantly the non-union discount stores like Wal-Mart, consumers, and the American government. These parties are all fighting over the distribution of a limited amount of money. ***************
To call the history of labor relations in the United States tumultuous would be an understatement. For almost two centuries, the nation has been involved in a tense discussion over the line between efficiency and exploitation. These disputes have often been addressed through government regulations. There are now laws governing the use of safety equipment in the workplace, the number of hours in a workday, and who can and can't be hired. Winning the right to organize has been one of labor's biggest victories. However, as this recent round of strikes shows, labor conflict is escalating once again. The recent unrest reflects fundamental changes in the US economy. An increasing proportion of jobs are shifting to the service sector, which is notoriously unstable. More and more workers are working part-time jobs that don't meet their basic needs by offering them a living wage or benefits. Journalist, Naomi Klein writes: A sense of impermanence is blowing through the labour force, destabilizing everyone from office temps to high-tech independent contractors to restaurant and retail clerks. Factory jobs are being outsourced, garment jobs are morphing into homework, and in every industry, temporary contracts are replacing full, secure employment.  This instability is manifesting itself in the area of health care. Over 24.5 million working Americans had no health insurance in 2003. The number is equal to 13.7 percent of the adult population under 65.  The shrinking number of insured Americans is often blamed on non-union discount retailers. The biggest of these is Wal-Mart. In 2003, Wal-Mart earned $244 billion in net sales — more than any other U.S. company. Wal-Mart is also the largest private employer in the United States, employing 1.2 million people worldwide.  Many people are concerned with Wal-Mart's growing power because of its bad reputation concerning labor rights. The corporation is widely seen as committed to crushing unions. Its traditional response to attempts to unionize a store has simply been to shut that store down. With no unions to deal with, Wal-Mart is able to lower wages and to insure fewer of its workers than other supermarket chains. The money Wal-Mart has saved on labor has allowed it to seriously threaten its competition. Colorado has three major grocery chains: Krogers, Safeway and Albertsons. All three chains have been hit hard by non-union groceries and especially by Wal-Mart. In order to cut labor costs and become more competitive, Colorado's grocery chains have asked their workers to start contributing to their health care premiums. The benefits package the three chains currently offer covers 100 percent of their worker's health insurance premiums. This kind...
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